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Recreating the Big Bang: Green Light for New Particle Accelerator

Scientists from around the world are gathered in the German city of Darmstadt on Wednesday to kick off the construction of a new €1.2 billion particle accelerator. They plan to use the facility in an effort to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang.

The GSI already has a linear particle accelerator. The new one will be much more powerful.
AP/GSI, Achim Zschau

The GSI already has a linear particle accelerator. The new one will be much more powerful.

One way to figure out what might have happened during the Big Bang -- that massive explosion of matter and energy that physicists think might have marked the birth of the universe -- is to spend hours in front of a chalkboard working through massively complicated formulae.

The other, of course, is to go out and create a Big Bang yourself. That is the route to be taken by German researchers along with their particle physics colleagues from over a dozen countries around the world. On Wednesday, those participating in the project will sign an agreement which will eventually result in the construction of a massive new particle accelerator in the western German city of Darmstadt. The goal is to discover new data about the birth of our universe.

"This laboratory will be recreating a mini version of the Big Bang," Horst Stöcker, scientific director of the German Society for Heavy Ion Research (GSI), which will oversee the facility, told the news agency DPA. "The substance we will be making resembles that in the first microseconds of the Big Bang, when it was a million times hotter than the center of the sun. We're talking a million times 10 million degrees Celsius."

The project, named the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), will cost a total of €1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) with the German government set to pick up 65 percent of the price tag. The rest will come from the state of Hesse and from the project's international partners, which include Russia, India, Italy, Poland and China among others. The accelerator itself will have a circumference of over a kilometer and will be built 17 meters underground.

Through the project, scientists hope to obtain a better understanding of how matter came into being. By accelerating charged atomic nuclei to ultra-high speeds and shooting them into a metal foil, atomic debris will be created that may provide new insights into the forces holding atoms together.

The project differs from the massive new particle accelerator currently nearing completion at CERN near Geneva in Switzerland in that it will focus more on the intensity of its particle beam rather than on the speed achieved. The CERN project, which hopes to begin experiments in 2008, hopes to find subatomic particles and antiparticles to help provide evidence backing up string theory.

"With CERN, it's like getting a look at a new country at high speed from the highway," said GSI spokesman Ingo Peter, somewhat unhelpfully. "With FAIR, it will be like 1,000 four-wheel-drives swarming over it off-road."

In the past, GSI scientists have discovered two extremely instable, heavy elements including Darmstadtium, with an atomic weight of 110. The institute also works on a cancer therapy using ionic beams.

cgh/dpa

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